Situated on the remote southwestern shore of Hudson Bay in Canada’s subarctic, is Churchill, Manitoba, population 900, give or take (50% indigenous).
Surrounded by hundreds of miles of rugged wilderness, the only way to get to Churchill is through the capital of Winnipeg by plane, or endure a 40-hour train ride.
Why should you care about this remote hole-in-the-wall hamlet? Because it’s home to a trio of extraordinary natural events: The polar bear migration, the beluga whale migration, and the elusive Northern Lights––Not to mention rugged coastal and tundra landscapes, a dense boreal forest, and in the summer, fields of colorful wildflowers.
While the bears and belugas get most of the attention, they are far from the only impressive species who’ve made the stark countryside home. Moose, caribou, wolves, red and arctic foxes, are just a few worth mentioning as are the numerous birds driving birders wild.
It’s also rich in history and culture. In the 1700s, Churchill was a hub for the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company in the days of the fur trade. In the early 1900s, it became a prairie port, resulting in the construction of the Hudson Bay Railroad and the city’s international harbor.
Churchill became a United States military base ( little of it remains) in 1942 as part of an overseas operation to Europe in WWll, catapulting the population to nearly 7,000. When it closed in 1980, it was a Canadian / United States sponsored training and test center.
Today, nature-based tourism and government positions are the town’s primary industries.
The New York Times named Churchill one of its “52 Places to Go in 2020.”
Not bad for a blip on the radar.
In Churchill, Manitoba Multi-Day Tours Reign Supreme
It’s not unusual in many destinations to build an itinerary by cherry-picking excursions using several outfitters. In Churchill, however, that’s not how it works. There are three major operators: Lazy Bear Expeditions, Frontiers North Adventures, and Natural Habitat Adventures, that offer packages combining seasonal nature and wildlife viewing peppered with cultural and historical activities.
Each company has a unique sensibility with departures that vary upon group size and what they emphasize. Some trips offer more days in the wild, or time in town. Some may focus on conservation or photography, or the Northern Lights.
To provide you with context and help you navigate your options when reviewing their websites, I’ve compiled a list of the things you can do in and around Churchill, many of which are part of the larger tours. Some you can do on your own.
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Churchill’s Polar Bear Viewing
(Season: July – November )
Churchill, bordered by Hudson Bay and Churchill River, is known for being one of the best destinations in the world to view polar bears, earning its moniker of “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
The town rests at the terminus of their winter migration route, where the Hudson Bay and Churchill River converge. It’s here the brackish water is first to freeze. After a summer spent without food further inland, the bears are eager for the ice to form so they can resume hunting seals.
Polar bears are most visible in October and November when they make their way toward the coast. From July through September, you might see a bear but visit during peak season if you want a higher probability.
Under no circumstances should you try to locate bears on your own. Polar bears are the planet’s largest land carnivore and can weigh up to 1300 lbs and stand 10 feet tall, and they will hunt humans.
Check out my Ultimate Guide to Polar Bear Tours for detailed information on the outfitters and their tours.
(Tip: If you’re visiting in the summer months, Lazy Bear Expeditions’ Coastal Boat Tour may be your best bet to see a polar bear. The company is the only one with a license to leave the river and travel distances along the Hudson Bay shore, where bears camp out amongst the grey wacky. That said, it’s only available as part of the company’s Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure )
Beluga Whale Migration
(June – September)
In June, over 60,000 belugas swim south from the Arctic Ocean to western Hudson Bay with nearly 3000 venturings into the Churchill River to feed and give birth.
There are so many, from shore, you can see the curved white backs of the belugas against the waves in almost every direction.
(Check out this GoPro video I took while AquaGliding as part of Lazy Bear Expedition’s 7-Day Arctic Summer Adventure. The belugas are in full song. It also gives you an idea of just how close they come.)
Belugas are exceptionally curious, and they approach vessels, not the other way around––sometimes within inches of the hull. They swim toward you like bright white torpedos. It’s crazy! And not just one or two, we’re talking 5, 6, 10, 20!
They don’t stay long––it’s more like a slow drive-by, but they come in waves (pun intended). Now and then, they’ll hang out for a while.
No matter when you see them, keep your ears open. Belugas aren’t called the “Canaries of the Sea” for nothing. Tours drop in hydrophones to help with the concert but as often as not you can hear it without one. Get ready for whistles, pops, clicks, monkey noises, and other sounds I can’t begin to describe.
You can see the beluga whales from land, by helicopter (Hudson Bay Helicopters, Custom Helicopters) Aquagliding (I loved it! Only through Lazy Bear), zodiac, kayak, or paddleboard (only Frontiers North).
Note: Lazy Bear Expeditions offer kayaking and Aquagliding (both 3 hrs) with belugas without having to be booked on one of its multi-day programs.
The Northern Lights
(High Season February Through March)
The ethereal beauty of the Northern Lights is an unforgettable experience. Churchill lies beneath the Auroral Oval, meaning the lights are year-round (approximately 300 days a year), though, in spring and summer, long, bright days in the subarctic make them harder to see. But it’s the elusive nature of the phenomenon that makes it so special–right?
February and March are the ideal months to see the Aurora. At this time, the sun sets very early, increasing the chance of a sighting.
Frontier’s North takes its guests to multiple locations such as its exclusive Thanadelthur Lounge, a glass-enclosed viewing station parked on the tundra miles from town and light pollution; a yurt in the boreal forest; a traditional teepee with campfire at a mushers’ camp, and Dan’s Diner (see below).
Nat Hab hosts its guests at the Aurora Pod, a heated structure with glass windows and skylights providing a 360-degree view of the night sky. Heated plexiglass domes, a secluded woodstove-heated cabin, and the mushers camp replete with a teepee and campfire.
A couple of years ago, Frontiers North introduced Dan’s Diner to its February – March season and touted it as a “Remote culinary adventure like no other,” and from the description, it sounds like they’re right.
After a Tundra Buggy ride across the frozen river, you’ll find a secluded, glass-enclosed pop-up restaurant. Inside, a private chef serves a multi-course dinner while the Northern Lights (assuming the clouds play nice) dance overhead.
You can indulge in this subarctic foodie fairy tale as a stand-alone (no flights or accommodations included); as part of a “Getaway” package (includes round-trip flights between Winnipeg and Churchill, one night at a Churchill hotel), and as part of the Northern Lights and Winter Nights Enthusiast tour.
(Mid June – Mid July)
Bird Nerds will appreciate Churchill’s over 250 species of birds that fly through or nest year-round. The Hudson Bay lowlands are ripe with bugs in summer, attracting birds of all kinds. Male eider ducks, mergansers, and northern pintails sport mating plumages. Other birds include falcons, tundra swans, bald eagles, Ross’s Gull, Northern Hawk Owl, Smith’s Longspur, Spruce Grouse, Three-Toed Woodpecker, Yellow Rail, and Harris’s Sparrow.
Casual birding takes place during any nature-based excursion when species present themselves, however, if you are a fan and want more attention given, I recommend booking a private guide.
Boating: Boat / Zodiac / Kayaking Tours
(Mid June – August/beginning of Sept )
In Churchill, there’s no “boating,” as one might think. Guest vessels are used for observing migrating belugas or transporting visitors to historical sites across the river.
(Lazy Bear Expeditions’ Coastal Tour is the only “cruise-like” excursion, but it’s only available as part of its Ultimate Summer Arctic Adventure. )
Dogsledding / Dogcarting
(October – November) / (June – September) respectively
Just what you’d imagine, gliding through the snow with a team of beautiful huskies leading the way. The Churchill region is dog-mushing nirvana. Trained guides are the pilots while guests are warm and snug in the sled. In months without snow, a customized sleigh has wheels.
Some of the group itineraries include dogsledding / carting, but you can also book separately with Blue Sky Expeditions. http://www.blueskymush.com/
(June – November)
What’s the next best thing to seeing polar bears from the ground? Observing them from the air. Helicopter flight-seeing makes it easy to cover vast distances to locate those pesky white fuzzballs if they haven’t made their way to the coast.
Of course, you may also see wolves, foxes, moose, beluga whales (depending on when you go). Plus, nothing beats a birds-eye view of the countryside below.
Nat Hab has two trips that include a helicopter, and Lazy Bear has one. Otherwise, book your sky-high adventure with Hudson Bay Heli tours specializing in 60 and 90-minute heli-tours. During the migration season, they offer a moneyback guarantee. Custom Helicoptershas large, high-visibility windows. Afterward, celebrate with a glass of champagne and some hor’s d’oeuvres’ post-flight.
Shop the Arctic Trading Company
An easy, do it yourself outing, be prepared to spend a nice chunk of time in this store. Even if you don’t buy anything, there are so many things to see. Besides the souvenirs you might expect, like printed t-shirts and hoodies, there’s cold-weather gear, and an eclectic mix of merchandise bound to keep you entertained. You’ll find jewelry, body products, knickknacks, and Eskimo carvings, to name a few. Their specialty is traditionally handmade moccasins and mukluks. They also host dreamcatcher and beading workshops.
Visit Miss Piggy
No, not the lovable Muppet. I’m talking a Curtiss C-46 Commando cargo aircraft that crash-landed atop a hill of grey-wacky.
Shortly after take-off on November 3, 1979, the ill-fated plane experienced a drop in oil pressure forcing the pilot to turn around and head back to the airport. They made it within 1/4 mile of the runway before it went down. The crew of three was injured but survived.
Named Miss Piggy because of the enormous loads she used to carry, she’s still intact (mostly). How she didn’t blow up or completely break apart after hitting the rocks is beyond me.
Today, the C-46 has become a bit of an art project with murals and graffiti covering most of the fuselage. It’s fascinating to walk around the wreck. I’m not exactly sure why a plane crash is a tourist attraction, but I admit, it’s kind of cool.
Make sure to check for sharp edges and stability before stepping — especially on the wings.
Explore the Itsanitaq Museum
(Year-Round. Limited hours during the Winter)
This one-room museum is small but packed with interesting artifacts from the indigenous people (Pre Dorset, Dorset, Thule, and Inuit) who lived in the region from 3000 through 1000 BC to the present. You’ll also find class-encased taxidermied animals: a 1500 pound walrus, an 800-pound polar bear, a 1200-pound Muskox, and an arctic fox. If you’re looking for books on the area or wildlife, there’s a great book section.
You’ll also find fossils, a 1200-year-old bone, sewing needles, sacred carved totems, authentic handmade kayaks, ancient weapons, a very cool narwhal tusk, even a chair from the Ronald Amundsen, the first vessel to sail the Northwest Passage in both directions at the turn of the 20th century.
Visit the New P.B.I. House
Opened in October 2019 for its first season, P.B.I. House is Polar Bears International’s new interpretive center.
Visitors learn about polar bears, ongoing research, and the effects of climate change and the efforts needed to combat it. It also hosts visiting scientists and has the technology to provide broadcast venues for media.
The house is open to the public, and interpretation is available. (On the website, check out the Northern Lights Live Cam and the organization’s cool bear tracker). You’ll also find out how to support P.B.I. or “adopt” a polar bear.
Explore the Parks Canada Visitor Center
Housed within the rail station, the visitor center focuses on the history of the area from both a human and ecological (flora and fauna) perspective with a presentation entitled “Our Land, Our Stories,” along with other interactive and interpretive exhibits. Don’t miss the life-sized diorama with a stuffed mother polar bear and her cubs nestled in their den.
The Visitors Center also holds presentations and lectures led by First Nations interpreters (50% of the local community consists of Cree, Dené, and Inuit) who discuss the unique heritage of the region’s indigenous cultures.
Polar Bear Holding Facility (A.K.A. The Polar Bear Jail)
As you might expect, Churchill and Manitoba are on the lookout for bears 24/7, but the locals are particularly vigil August through November during the migration. Enter the Polar Bear Alert Program, according to a sign in town it’s “The only known program in existence developed to protect both human life and property, and the lives and welfare of polar bears.”
When a bear is spotted, the first response is to scare the bears away using noisemakers. Still, tenacious souls who keep returning are humanely trapped and taken to the holding facility, or as the locals call it, polar bear jail. Inside are five air-conditioned cells, and a single, heated cell for orphaned cubs.
The inmates stay for 30 days or so––just enough time for them to become desperately bored and reconsider ever returning. At the end of their incarceration, they are released miles away by truck and freed. Sometimes, if necessary, they’re airlifted out by helicopter.
You can’t see inside the jail, but on the exterior is a giant mural painted by the renowned artist Kal Barteski. On the perimeter of the facility, are some of the traps they use to capture ill-mannered visitors.
Tour the Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site
(July – August)
On the far side of the Churchill River, built on a desolate patch of tundra, are the restored remains of the 18th century Prince of Wales Fort, a multi-level, fur trade fortress built by the Hudson Bay Company between 1731 – 1771. Remnants of the old barracks, courtyard, cobblestone paving, and some internal structures are present in addition to the stone parapets and many of the original cannons.
In 1782, the French seized the fort, destroying most of it; however, Parks Canada has lovingly reconstructed it to its current state. Fort guides provide an interpretation of the structure’s days of old.
MV Ithaca Hike
(June – August)
In September of 1960, the oil freighter Ithaca ran aground n Bird Cove 12 miles east of Churchill. During 80 mph winds, the ship’s rudder cracked, the engine lost power, and when the anchor didn’t hold, it ran aground. Today the Ithaca, rusted and abandoned, remains. For those who love such things (as I do), you can check it out at low tide.
Town Center Complex
In the city’s cavernous town center, there’s an assortment of activities and services under one roof. Visitors can access the facility as a walk-in as well as participate in a variety of scheduled programming. The complex includes a “Health center, high school, swimming pool, indoor playground, curling rink, hockey arena, gymnasium, and fitness center. “
Stop at the Post Office
I know the post office isn’t typically a vacation stop, but if you’d like to get your passport stamped with an unofficial Churchill polar bear logo, that’s where it’ll be.
Look for the Polar Bear Alert Program’s Weekly Activity Report hanging on the wall. Details on subjects such as bear occurrences for the week, to date, polar bears flown out directly, the number of bears in jail, and so on is noteworthy.
Note: Miss Piggy, The Museum, the Polar Bear Jail, and P.B.I. House are standard stops on the outfitters’ ‘town tours.’
Commonly Asked Questions
How to get to Churchill, Manitoba
There are only two ways to get to Churchill, by plane (2hrs) or by train (2 trains per week approx 40 hours) from Winnipeg. There are no roads.
Calm Air is the domestic carrier most companies use.
When is the best time to visit Churchill?
That’s up to you, really, depending on what you fancy. Viewing polar bears is the best in October and November. The Beluga Migration is at its peak in July and August. Northern Lights are more dazzling in February and March.
Am I Guaranteed to See the Polar Bears and Belugas?
Wildlife, in general, is never something that can be guaranteed. The guides are well trained. They will do their best to put you in the right place at the right time to see polar bears, but if you need guarantees, don’t go. Not seeing polar bears is a possibility, and you have to be ok with that. Remember, there are other fun things to see and do.
That said, belugas during the migration are hard to miss.
What is the Weather in Churchill?
Volatile. Warm to cold and back again. You’re in the subarctic next to the water, which leads to all kinds of interesting possibilities. In October and November, make sure you have plenty of layers because it gets cold. Seriously cold. For recommendations, check out my post: “Use this Winter Packing List, and you’ll Never Be Cold Again” In summer, it can get warm, but nights are still chilly. You’ll still need layers but not as heavy as you would bring in the Winter.
Is it Safe in Town From Polar Bears?
I think the best word is “safer.” The Polar Bear Alert Program is very good at keeping bears out of the city, but they do get in. It’s just a fact. Doors to homes and cars are never locked so people can step inside for safety if necessary. If you hear firecracker shells, it means the team is actively hazing or moving a bear from town. Do not gawk or seek out the confrontation to watch.
Always pay attention to your guides. They know what to do in an emergency.
Another thing, if you come across a bear and it sees you, back away slowly, keeping your eyes on it at all times. Do Not Run. It will only incite the animal to charge. If you have a bag, drop it while you’re backing up, the bear may stop to sniff it and give you extra time to make your escape.
Do I Need Travel Insurance?
Yes. Most tour operators will require it, but if you go on your own, I still say absolutely.
I always recommend travel insurance to safeguard your hard-earned money, but it’s essential to have medical coverage. Churchill is in the middle of nowhere, and anything could happen, and I’m not talking about being attacked by an animal. I’m talking about slipping and breaking your leg. Something benign, and you’re going to want to make sure you’re able to get the best help possible, which may require an evacuation. Please don’t assume your credit card has it covered.
Note: If you book through an outfitter, they’ll require it.
Are There A Lot of Bugs?
There can be a lot of bugs in the summer, no lie. On the positive side, it draws more birds on the negative, well, you know the negative. Repellent with DEET is the best; I love Bug X towelettes. They are lightweight and easy to pack. Some people have used face nets, but when I was there, it wasn’t necessary. I recommend calling closer to your departure to see what Mother Nature has conjured up.
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